By WILLIAM SMITH
"Max Payne 3" available for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and coming to PC on Friday. Rated "M" for Mature. $59.99.Most of the time, reviewing a triple A quality game is an exercise in meeting impossibly high expectations. When I played the highly lauded "The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings" last month, I was expecting a four-star game, and that's exactly what I got. And then some.
When I started playing "Max Payne 3," my expectations were quite a bit lower, despite my previous admiration for the series. I spent quite a blissful weekend in 2003 blowing through "Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne," and gave it a favorable review in Iowa City's college newspaper, The Daily Iowan. Three out of four stars, if I remember correctly.
That's not the kind of score you give to a game of the year contender, though. Written by Finnish author Sam Lake (who now writes for the "Alan Wake" games), the "Max Payne" series is best known for pioneering Bullet Time - a slow-motion effect that allows Payne to take aim at the baddies before they can even get a bead on him. Countless games attempted to rip off this idea from "The Matrix" (which was released two years earlier), but "Max Payne" was the only game that did it right.
The gritty, neo-noir story line was pretty bare bones, but created much needed context for a third-person shooting game that needed something beyond a cool gimmick. "Max Payne 2" was just a further refinement of this formula.Like I said - not game of the year material.
"Max Payne 3" exists in a substantially higher stratosphere, even though the core game play - slow-motion, third-person-shooting - remains the same. Most of that credit can be given to "Grand Theft Auto" writer and producer Dan Houser, who took over the reins as lead writer for this latest "Max Payne" installment.
It definitely shows.
Featuring outstanding graphics, tight writing, compelling gun-play and a convincing action-movie plot that could have been ripped straight out of a 1980s classic like "Lethal Weapon" (my favorite action film), "Max Payne 3" is one of the best games I've played this year.
Trust me, I never thought I would say that, either.
There's not much backstory you need to know going into "May Payne 3," and the narrative does a good job of filling in the gaps. Payne's wife and child were brutally murdered at the outset of the first game, turning him into a vigilante New York cop looking for revenge.
Payne is an ex-cop turned private bodyguard in this latest outing, and like all fictional ex-cops, he drowns his pain with endless amounts of liquor - Jack Daniel's, mostly. He uses the booze to wash down handfuls of painkillers, which, according to Payne, come from 10 different online doctors.
When a newfound friend convinces Payne to leave the East Coast for a job protecting an ultra-rich family in São Paulo, Brazil, it sounds like a pretty easy gig, despite the techno music Payne must endure at various local night clubs. But once a street gang starts abducting the people Payne was supposed to protect, all hell breaks loose.
That's a lot of exposition for a game that boils down to blowing holes in baddies while diving behind cover in slow motion, and I was shocked to see five-minute long cinema scenes shoved in between gunplay ballads. Thankfully, Dan Houser has quite an ear for hard-boiled crime fiction, and I was as engrossed by the story as much as the action - a first for the "Max Payne" series.
While the emphasis on plot definitely leads to a linear experience, most "Max Payne" fans wouldn't want it any other way. Though Max can do much of his killing while taking cover behind objects this time around, enemies will continually rush you and force Payne to dive across the room while firing both pistols - John Woo style.
Despite a few niggling cover issues, the mechanics feel finely tuned, and if you die in a room full of thugs, it's usually your fault. There's always a way out of seemingly impossible gunfights.
Those gunfights often turn into action set pieces that pay tribute to classic action films, such as a nighttime shoot-out at a Brazilian soccer stadium that pays tribute to the baseball stadium sequence in "Dirty Harry." Considering Payne is just an angrier, more depressed version of Clint Eastwood (if that's possible), it fits perfectly. In fact, nearly every location in the game brings more depth to Payne's story.
It helps that this is one of the best looking games ever released for a home console system. When I first saw a preview of "Max Payne 3" a few months ago, the character animation was so smooth that I figured it was just a hopped up tech demo that consisted more of cinema scenes than game play.
I was dead wrong. Everything from the ripples in Payne's coat to the brutal slow-motion head shots look amazing, which is largely due to the character animation. It's the same graphics engine used in previous lookers like "L.A. Noire" (my 2011 Game of the Year) and "Grand Theft Auto IV," but each time I see the engine, it gets a little prettier. Smaller character models are the key to superior animation, and I can't wait to see how "Grand Theft Auto V" will look.
Though I'm not usually that big of a fan of online play, the multiplayer aspect of "Max Payne 3" is pretty darn good, too. The maps and model dynamically change within a match, and there are so many rewards and unlockable elements that you'll likely be teaming up with your buddies into the wee hours of the morning.
Just don't got into this game thinking that Rockstar has elevated the genre beyond the classic shoot-'em-up style of game play. Hardcore gamers instantly will recognize many of the elements in the game from the "Kane and Lynch" series - particularly "Kane and Lynch 2: Dogs Days." Though the series is deeply flawed, I'm a big fan of both "Kane and Lynch" games, which pay just as much tribute to the action genre as "Max Payne" does. Though the graphics can't compare, the visual style is very similar, and "Kane and Lynch 2" was just released two years ago.
It's good to be first, but "Max Payne 3" does it oh-so-much better - both in style and execution. Though I wouldn't exactly call Payne a three-dimensional character, he's one of the more fleshed-out action heroes I've come across in recent years - miles from where he started in the first "Max Payne." He's just a lovable drunk who's getting on in years, which is made evident through the game play. When Payne dives across a room, it takes the old bear a few seconds to get up from the floor. Those creaky joints just don't work like they used to.
As good as "Max Payne 3" is, the campaign is only about eight to 10 hours long, relegating it to a rental if you're only interested in the single-player campaign. The multiplayer does make it worth a purchase, though, if playing online with friends is more your cup of tea.
However you spend your time with "Max Payne 3," it won't be time wasted. This is as triple A as a triple A game gets.
Three-and-a-half out of Four Stars